Brian Massumi on threat and the autopoiesis of affective logic

Some rough notes and tentative thoughts:

Affect is closely associated with the virtual, understood as surplus possibility, or complexity from which to select. Brian Massumi speaks of the “affect-driven logic of the could have/would have” (“The Political Ontology of Threat,” 55). The could-have/would-have is a double conditional. For example, the president argues that Saddam Hussein could have possessed weapons of mass destruction, and if Saddam did have them he would have used them. In the end, the fact that Saddam did not have WMD doesn’t matter because he could have had them–and then he would have (probably) used them. Better safe than sorry. Preemptive logic, as in the logic of preemptive military strike, relies the double conditional. It’s a kind of logical trap.

Preemptive action will always have been right (Massumi 54).

A threat alert is a sign, an “affective fact.” Affective facts–signs standing in for a possible event–can persuade. They can generate the same fear that the actual fact can produce. People panic just as much regardless of whether anything real backs up the threat. The objective referent isn’t necessary. A sign is enough. One can react emotionally to monsters and unicorns even they don’t exist in “reality.” There is another reality, “the reality of appearance” (Whitehead). As Massumi puts it,

There is a common category of entities, known to all, that specializes in making what is not actually present really present nonetheless, in and as its own effect: signs. The sign is the vehicle for making presently felt the potential force of the objectively absent.

Massumi gives the example of a fire alarm. There is a direct connection between the fire alarm as sign and the physiological response. We don’t, according to Massumi, think about how to respond to the fire alarm. One’s body is just set in motion. It’s a reflex, probably at the primitive, “reptile brain” level. This makes sense because in the event of an actual emergency, there is no time to think, and even less time to debate the issue.

However, the fire alarm isn’t such a great example because there are plenty of occasions when a fire alarm sounds and we don’t respond as intended. We know it is just a drill (maybe we’ve been told to expect a drill that morning); so we just go through the motions of the drill without any sense of urgency. In this case thought does intervene. The more often we are subjected to these kinds of drills, the less emotional impact they have.

Massumi argues that the difference between responding to a sign of current danger (fire alarm) and responding to a sign for future danger (terrorism)  is that preemptive action is always right because of the double conditional.

A person responds to a fire alarm, or is supposed to respond, because the alarm resonates with the body, or the human sensorium–the sum of an organism’s perception; in other words, the human sensorium has resonance capability; the fire alarm irritates the sensorium, setting the body in motion. Some events resonate with the human sensorium and some don’t. For instance, only a limited range of frequencies of sound and light register/resonate with human beings.

Preemptive logic, according to Massumi, is not like normative logic. The rule of noncontradiction doesn’t apply:

Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future, preemptive logic is not subject to the same rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attribute an effective reality to futurity.

Preemptive logic is based on threat. Threat, in systems-theoretical terms, might be called a symbolically generalized communication medium. It is, for Massumi, one kind of “operative logic.” If threat is a communication medium, it’s like power, money, scientific truth, or love in that sense–a medium that can be reused and a surplus must be held in reserve. If a political system uses a medium like threat or punishment too much, like using fire drills too often, it loses its effect. Threat, like power more generally, is most effective when held in reserve, not used indiscriminately. Its helps the regime of power if there is “surplus threat” (Massumi, 60). The threat or possibility of attack is always more effective, in the long run, than an actual attack, because the actual attack locks the attacker into a series of unpredictable consequences; the attacker loses control. In trying to solve one problem, it raises new problems.

Symbolically generalized communication media (power, money, etc.) serve to make improbable communication more probable. At the same time, they solve a paradox.

Preemptive logic doesn’t operate in the factual realm (what is/is not the case); therefore, it is not subject to the law of noncontradiction. It operates in the temporal realm—what could or might happen in the future (or future present) and what we must do now, in the present, to prevent it.

Proposition: If we feel a threat, there is a threat. Threat is effectively self-causing.

Corollary: If we feel a threat, such that there was a threat, then there will always have been a threat. Threat is once and for all, in the nonlinear time of its own choosing. (Massumi 54)

Is there a goal for an operative logic?

“What does an operative logic want? Itself. Its own continuance. It is autopoietic. An operative logic’s self-causative powers drive it automatically to extend itself. Its autopoietic mode of operation is one with a drive to universalize itself” (Massumi 63).


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